Character  &  Context

Morality When the Mind is Unknowable

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By Rita A. McNamara

In 1999, 55-year-old Tony Martin shot 16-year-old Fred Barras dead after Barras and an accomplice broke in to Martin’s farmhouse in Norfolk, England. English law allows for a person to kill in self-defense, but only if the act of self-defense included no more than “reasonable force.” When Martin was later put on trial, the fact that Martin’s actions caused Barras’ death was not in question. Rather, the jury selected to decide Martin’s fate were faced with the challenge of determining Martin’s state of mind when he fired his gun: was Martin acting according to what he considered reasonable force, or was he acting with intent to cause injury?

Our ability to infer the presence and content of other minds is a fundamental building block underlying the intuitions about right and wrong that we use to navigate our social worlds. People living in Western societies often identify internal motives, dispositions, and desires as the causes of all human action. That these behavioral drivers are inside of another mind is not an issue because, in this Western model of mind, people can be read like books – observers can infer other people’s motives and desires and use these inferences to understand and predict behavior. Given this Western model of mind as an internally coherent, autonomous driver of action, the effort spent on determining whether Martin meant to harm Barras seems so obviously justified as to go without question. But this is not necessarily the case for all cultures.

In many societies, people focus far more on relational ties and polite observance of social duties than on internal mental states. On the other end of the cultural spectrum of mental state focus, some small-scale societies have ‘Opacity of Mind’ norms that directly prohibit inference about mental states. In contrast to the Western model of mind, these Opacity of Mind norms often suggest that it is either impossible to know what another person is thinking, or rude to intrude into others’ private mental space. So, while mental state reasoning is a key foundation for intuitions about right and wrong, these intuitions and mental state perceptions are also dependent upon cultural influences. But how does this culture/ mind interaction happen? Does culture merely shape social situations while leaving the underlying social cognitive processes unchanged, or does culture fundamentally alter the way that we perceive each other as we move through these social worlds?

In my work, I examine this question through the specific case of Indigenous Fijians living in Yasawa, Fiji. Yasawan culture includes Opacity of Mind norms that discourage discussion about others’ actions in terms of mental states. In working with these Yasawan communities, I found that cultural differences in how we think about beliefs, thoughts, emotions, and social situations lead to differing emphases on intent or outcome in moral judgments. I first directly examined Yasawans’ self-reported focus on mental states. Compared to both North Americans and non-Indigenous Fijians, Yasawan adults are less focused on internal mental states but not emotions or social situations. This suggests that there is something specific about Indigenous Fijian culture that leads to lower mental state focus than in other cultural groups.

I next examined how Yasawans, North Americans, and non-Indigenous Fijians judged moral norm violations in the context of short stories that varied in intent and outcome. I found that Yasawan participants typically judged accidents to be about as bad and as worthy of punishment as failed attempts. In contrast, both non-Indigenous Fijians and North Americans rated failed attempts as worse and more punishable than accidents – clearly focusing more emphasis on intent in their judgments.

To determine that mental state focus was indeed the source of these differences, I next induced Yasawans and North Americans to first consider thoughts or consider actions before making their moral judgments. I found that reminding Yasawans to consider thoughts leads them to judge failed attempts as worse and more punishable than accidents – mirroring the intent focus in other groups. Therefore, differences in habitual focus on internal mental states appear to be the source of these differing intent/outcome judgments.

When I next examined how development factors in to these cross-cultural patterns of intent vs. outcome focus, I found that the differences are likely the result of cultural learning. I asked adults and children in Yasawa and North America to watch puppet shows that depicted characters either helping or hindering each other in scenarios that varied in combinations of intent and outcome, and then asked them to choose which puppet they liked the most. I found that children in Yasawa and North America show similar degrees of intent focus, while North American adults show greater intent focus and Yasawan adults show lower intent focus. This suggests that mental state inference and intentionality reasoning may be a part of core human cognition that is modulated by cultural influences – both increasing and decreasing mentalizing focus – into adulthood.

More importantly, this work with Indigenous Yasawans highlights the necessity to explicitly include research conducted outside of the urban, university laboratory. In the Tony Martin case, after initially being convicted of murder, Martin was able to reduced his conviction to manslaughter—a conviction entailing less harmful intent resulting in less punishment. While this legal argument holds in Western courts, we might speculate that a group of jurors who hold Opacity of Mind beliefs might to stick to the murder conviction. For individuals in a culture with Opacity of Mind norms, the change in his mental state would be unlikely to reduce his punishment. In order to create a complete science of the mind, cultural differences in psychological processing should not be considered as variation around an ideal (Western) prototype, but as reactions to specific social, ecological, and historical influences that shape individuals into enculturated beings.

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